What is HIV?

 HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus and is a part of the group of viruses called ‘retroviruses’. HIV attacks a person’s immune system by getting into the blood stream and working to kill off healthy immune cells.

Once a person is diagnosed with HIV, it stays in their system for life – as there is no cure available yet. However, there are many medications available to enable people living with HIV to live long, healthy lives.

What does HIV do?

HIV invades cells within the body and goes on to continually reproduce itself.

Normally, the body’s immune system can control many infections, but HIV stops this from happening by infecting the cells that fight off infections and some cancers - CD4 cells.

Left untreated, HIV can reduce the effectiveness of the immune system to the point where opportunistic infections and cancers can’t be fought off. This stage of HIV infection, where a compromised immune system results in other serious illnesses taking hold, is what is known as AIDS.  The vast majority of people living with HIV who are on treatment will never develop Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS).

 

How is it transmitted?

As HIV is primarily found in genital secretions (including cum and vaginal fluid)  and blood, it can be transmitted by passing from person to person through these bodily fluids.

  • The main ways HIV can be passed on are:
  • Unprotected anal, front-hole or vaginal sex
  • Sharing injecting equipment
  • From mother to baby during pregnancy, birth or through breastfeeding

There are ways to prevent HIV transmission in all of these situations:

  • Using condoms, PrEP or U=U as a prevention strategy will stop transmission during sex
  • New, unused injecting equipment removes the risk of HIV transmission – head to the Needle Exchange for more information
  • For mums living with HIV, maintaining effective treatment throughout pregnancy and avoiding breastfeeding can halt onward transmission to babies

It’s also very important to know the ways HIV is not transmitted. For example, HIV cannot be transmitted by:

  • Any skin to skin contact
  • Kissing
  • Sharing food
  • Protected sex (condoms, PrEP or U=U)
  • Living in the same space

 

How do I know if I have HIV?

 HIV can be detected by taking a test – head to our testing page to find out more about the types of tests available.

Anyone who is sexually active should be testing for HIV at least twice a year to make sure they know their status and to detect HIV as early as possible, if they do get a positive result.

It’s important to detect HIV early, as treatment should be started as soon as possible after exposure to ensure the best health outcomes (including quickly reaching an undetectable viral load – which means HIV cannot be transmitted sexually).  

Without testing it’s impossible to know if you might be living with undiagnosed HIV, as symptoms can vary hugely from person to person. Some people may not present symptoms until they become very sick, others may develop a flu-like illness soon after exposure – often called ‘seroconversion’ illness, as this tends to be when your body develops antibodies in reaction to HIV being present in your system. In other words, the presence of any symptoms, or lack of symptoms, does not tell whether you are living with HIV or not.

 

What happens if I’m diagnosed with HIV?

To start with, a deep breath. Getting the news can be a lot to take in, but it’s important to remember that modern HIV treatments are very effective and you are not going to die. In fact, if you start and continue treatment, you are most likely to live a long, healthy life, just as those not living with HIV.

Once you are on treatment, it is very likely you will soon reach what is called an undetectable viral load. This means that the level of the virus can no longer be measured in your system by standard viral load tests. While, this doesn’t mean you no longer have HIV, it does mean that it can no longer be transmitted sexually – even if you don’t use condoms at all!

 

Want to learn more or have an in-depth workshop with your colleagues or classroom?

We run free workshops that are aimed at raising awareness of HIV and AIDS in Aotearoa New Zealand, providing latest updates on HIV prevention strategies, and promoting our vision of ending new HIV transmissions in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Our workshop covers a range of topics including: 

The basics of HIV; 

HIV prevention strategies including Stay Safe, Test Often, and Treat Early; 

Living with HIV and challenging HIV stigma;

Each workshop runs for approximately an hour and we can tailor the content based on the duration requested and the type of audience. You can book our workshop by filling out the form here

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